It’s a bit of a stretch to say that Julius Avery’s gory World War II horror film Overlord is a great comic book movie, given that it’s an original concept and not based off a priorly published work of sequential art. But for a time back in the ’40s and ’50s, this type of tale was propagated by EC Comics, the same company that also created and published Mad Magazine, which filled its pages every month with subversive and disturbing tales well out of line with the post-war sensibilities which have come to define the time in retrospect. They were persecuted off of the sales rack, but maintained an undeniable influence over the years — if you’ve ever seen George Romero’s masterpiece Creepshow, then you’ve already seen a loving tribute to the publisher — and Overlord is one of the best modern takes on that type of story. To say the least, I was hooked from the title screen onwards.
It’s June 5, 1944, and a group of American soldiers wait, choked with panic, as they prepare to parachute over Nazi-occupied France in order to take down a radio-jamming tower so that air support can assist the Allied troops who will be storming the beaches of Normandy the following day in, of course, Operation “Overlord.” Their plane, along with others flying in formation, gets shot up by anti-aircraft fire, and the soldiers are forced to jump. Most are killed before they can even hit the ground, but a few do survive: Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a brave private who has an unfairly-earned reputation for being a coward; Tibbet (John Magaro), a tough-talking New Yawkuh who loves to gamble and talk shit; Chase (Iain De Caestecker), a photographer; and Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), a tough explosives expert. They make their way to the small town in which the tower is stationed, meet up with a helpful French civilian (Mathilde Ollivier), and discover that the radio tower is the absolute least of their worries. Beneath it is a compound in which a Nazi officer (Pilou Asbæk) and a series of scientists are experimenting with reanimating dead soldiers, with horrific results. So, it’s up to the GIs to put a stop to all of this with a whole lotta hot lead and some wit.
Russell and Asbaek are the standouts from this ensemble, and it’s not accident that the two of them are on a collision course with one another. The former does little more than channel his father’s rough-and-tumble charisma — the kind Russell the elder perfected when working with John Carpenter back in the ’80s — but he’s able to ground the hairier aspects of the role with a sense of scarring, that Ford really has seen some shit before this mission. Asbaek, a Dane actor known best for his work on HBO’s Game of Thrones and, to cineastes, at least, a longtime collaborator of director Tobias Lindholm, is suitably creepy as the head Nazi, and is game for some seriously fucked up prosthetics work (as you can see above) once shit begins to hit the fan. The rest of the ensemble are fine enough, but there’s very little that distinguishes their work beyond the archetypes that they’re supposed to be playing. That’s by design, however, as the theatrics and thrills are the focus of Avery’s film, and nobody is distractingly bad.
If there’s one thing that nearly sinks Overlord, it’s that it has quite a bit of downtime following its intense opening sequence — a near-fatal pacing flaw in a propulsive horror/action hybrid like this — that is only undone once Boyce makes his way into the compound and starts to discover the inner workings of the Nazi deep sciences division. Once Avery and screenwriter Billy Ray find their way back to the stated purpose of the film — to process wartime horror and cruelty through genre fun — it becomes a gory blast well worth your time and attention. There’s some excellent Nazi killin’ that happens in this movie, including one great kill involving a motorcycle, duct tape and a grenade, as well as some surprisingly well-choreographed action within the final moments between two undead super-soldiers.
All the while, Avery and company manage to maintain said E.C. Comics luridness in the tone far better than some of their predecessors, and thanks to this, Overlord manages to find that perfect sweet spot. There are some of those out there in the world who would claim that this type of horror film is both offensive and cheapens the actual real-world horrors of World War II, and I’d argue that they’re wrong. Genre and, rather, fiction at large has always been used to understand our world in the most heightened of ways — and that’s something deeply essential regardless of the decorums of “taste.” It’s a worthwhile and fun cinematic experience, first and foremost, but it does have its own deeply creepy merits as well.